The Marine Room — a room with a view

Tucked away on a hidden road in La Jolla, The Marine Room sits right on the water’s edge affording those who are lucky enough to dine here, the luxurious view of the ocean’s horizon.

We arrive just as the sun is making its way back into the horizon, the orange hues like a painter’s palette across the dusky sky. Chef Bernard Guillas is making his way around the dining room, welcoming his customers with his hearty personality.

I met Executive Chef Chef Bernard and Chef de Cuisine Ron Oliver at the Top Chef Korean Food Challenge a few months ago where they were the challengers and I was a guest blogger judge.

When Chef Bernard sees me, he greets me warmly and in true French style, plants a kiss on both my cheeks and tells me our dinner will be a tasting menu showcasing “what we do here” and smiles at me with a glint in his eye.

What they do at The Marine Room is this — using a myriad of ingredients spanning various cultures to bring together, on a plate, different flavor infusions fit for a fine dining experience.

As we sit back in our chairs, I marvel at the beautiful view, waves edging towards us, the sunset skies creating a picturesque view that can only be described as romantic, serene and relaxing.

Our first course is one third of the Ocean Trilogy Tasting — plum tuna tartare served in a sesame cone and topped with Spanish trout caviar.

The little morsels of sushi-grade tuna is tossed in sesame oil and sits in a slightly sweet tart cone, which I’m told, is made with umeboshi (plum). We pick it up and bite into it. This is textural heaven for me. The crunchiness of the cone with the firmness of the fish, together with the freshness of the delicate microgreen garnish makes for a wondrous mouthful.

Our second course arrived in a little casserole dish. Skillet roasted forest mushrooms casserole ($15) features a blend of mushrooms including the exquisite morel and the more humble honshimeiji.

This is definitely a marriage of east and west combining sherry — 20-year-old Royal Ambrosante to be precise with Japanese mushrooms and edamame. While I loved the mushrooms I didn’t care for the boudin blanc which was a bit spongey and reminiscent of over-cooked fish cake. The heavenly sauce it was sitting in was glorious and I found myself dipping my bread into it just to sop it all up, not wanting to waste a drop.

Royal “Tuk Bokki” ($11) was our third course and is on the menu to celebrate the chefs’ win at the Korean Food Challenge. Tuk bokki, a Korean rice cake dish, along with bibimbap secured the chefs’ victory at the challenge.

The version here is less spicy to keep in tune with a fine dining menu and I could really taste the sweetness from the gochujang (Korean red chili paste). A green papaya remoulade brings some crunchiness and little balls of summer squash and honshimeiji mushrooms also graced the plate. I am always impressed when chefs are able to bring their own creativity to a dish outside their usual repertoire.

Our fourth course is my favorite of the evening. Jordanian zaatar dusted wild prawn and scallop ($18) is delicately seasoned so it enhances the freshness of the seafood without overpowering them. Both items are cooked to perfection, especially the scallop which is tender and cuts through like butter.

Israeli couscous graces the plate and is so generous with the saffron I immediately taste it the minute it hits my tongue. A lemongrass coconut milk foam is delicate and so aromatic it could’ve been presented as a soup and I would’ve drank it up with vigor.

What I thought was a grape tomato turned out to be preserved kumquat. The tart fruit is prepared confit style enhancing its flavor ten-folds. Absolutely delicious! And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the pain d’epices, a thin crispy piece of spiced cookie used as a garnish was just delectable. Chef Bernard told me it is his grandma’s recipe! Looks like he won’t be divulging it anytime soon that’s for sure.

Our next dish, is an Alaskan halibut coated with leek dill pollen ($35) and served with rose fingerling potatoes, tomato confit, the highly praised maitake mushrooms and micro basil with an essence (sauce) made with Buddha hand lemon and Japanese sake. The fish is delicate and lovely with the coating it is topped with. I didn’t need anything else to complement it with.

By now we were quite stuffed but we’ve yet to taste the Berkshire pork cheeks braised with plum wine ($15). The meat is tender and acroutrements included honshimeiji mushrooms, black garbanzos which I didn’t care for, and candied root vegetables which I adored.

The candied root vegetables won me over and I wish I had enough room to finish it, but I had to leave some room for dessert and forced myself to push my plate away.

Our dessert Trilogy ($13) showcased three items. Although the espelette blood orange sorbet was undoubtedly the best item, the most practical, after our big meal with the citrus helping the digestion process along some, I was definitely enamored by the gianduja hazelnut chocolate crunch.

Rich and wonderful crispy with creamy gianduja making it rather sinful and decadent. Ordinarily, I’m a sucker for pot au creme, but I only managed to taste the ginger creme version here before pushing it away declaring defeat.

As I looked out the window, I can still see the waves ebbing its way towards us. Even though the sun has long set against the horizon, the huge flood lights of the Marine Room continues to shine outwards allowing diners a continuous view of the ocean. This is truly one of the most romantic places to enjoy a meal.

Fellas, if you are planning on proposing, I’m sure Chef Bernard can help you secure a lovely table with an outstanding view to pop the question at the most opportune moment. Regardless of what the occasion, the Marine Room is definitely an experience, one which is definitely best enjoyed with someone you love!

The Marine Room
2000 Spindrift Drive
La Jolla, CA 92037
Tel: 858-459-7222

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Sutha Thai Kitchen — when I don’t feel like cooking

Sometimes I’m very lazy, lazy about driving — actually, it’s more than sometimes, it’s pretty much ALL the time. When I’m craving Thai food I always curse myself when the lack of desire to drive means I won’t be venturing to Siam Taste of Asia or Thai Nakorn. That’s when I hit up Sutha Thai Kitchen!

I’m a Thai food snob! I’ve been to Thailand many many times, I lived with a Thai boyfriend decades ago and it was he who taught me how to cook most of the Thai dishes I make at home these days. It has been a really daunting task living in Orange County trying to find a Thai restaurant which lives up to what my palate is used to, so I rarely eat Thai outside of home.

My friend Melissa of Alosha’s Kitchen first introduced this place to me years ago, and since that fateful day I’ve returned many times. My usual thing to order is the yum neur (Thai beef salad) and I fell in love with it as soon as I put the first morsel of it into my mouth.

The dressing was perfect — right amount of saltiness mixed with the right amount of tartness. I was in heaven! I would come here just to eat this dish alone, but of course, the glutton in me can’t just order a salad and be done with it.

Papaya salad or som tam is decent here, a nice mix of salty and tart and the julienned green papaya is not too wilted so some crunch remains. I don’t usually order this dish but when my friends order it, I won’t say no. It is refreshing and a great start to whet your appetite.

The other thing I like is green chicken curry and when I don’t feel like making it the one here suffices. I’ve had it at other Thai establishments and it’s usually too sweet or too watery, or worse yet, both. Here it is not overly sweet and the sauce is not like liquid. In fact, it’s pretty close to the one I make at home.

Nam Sod is another dish I love but is not something I can feasibly make at home. Apart from Thai Nakorn, this is one I really like. The version here doesn’t have ginger, but the ground pork and crispy rice salad is delicious and I crave the varying flavors and textures you get from each bite — the salty, tart, crispy, chewy.

Known as “drunken” noodles, pad kee mow is a widely popular hangover dish consisting of thick flat rice noodles, a handful of vegetables and meat of your choice. Tofu is another option if you don’t want meat. I like the spiciness of this dish and prefer it over pad Thai any day.

I can’t remember the name of this next dish but it’s the one with green beans and your choice of meat. We chose chicken and it was delicious with a lovely sauce which went perfectly with steamed rice. This leans more towards a Chinese stir-fry and works well when you want to break up some of the spicier dishes.

Another noodle dish I like is the glass noodles, or pad woon sen as it is called in Thai. Generally it is listed as a ‘salad’ but I think it works just as well as a side starch. I prefer the texture of this to the sticky pad Thai — can you tell I’m not a fan of pad Thai?

The restaurant is very small and seats about 15 people, although I’ve never seen it fully packed whether I’ve come for lunch or dinner. Service is what one would expect in Thailand, hospitable, polite and attentive, even though at times, I might have to repeat myself a few times to get my message across, but the lovely man who works there is always patient and accommodating. You can always be sure you’ll always receive a warm friendly welcome whether it’s your first time or if you visit regularly.

Sutha Thai Kitchen
1161 Irvine Blvd
Tustin, CA 92780 (next to the Tustin Lanes)
Tel: 714-734-6100

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Renzo’s A Taste of Peru — one of my favorite places to eat

It’s been about eight months since my first encounter with Renzo Machiavello, the vivacious Peruvian who’s name graces this restaurant. It was my friend Mahesh who first brought me here and from that very first moment, I was enamored by this small, unassuming place, which has given me some of the tastiest food I’ve had.

I love Peruvian food and surprisingly there are quite a number of them in Orange County. I’ve tried a lot of it and have my favorite haunts AND favorite dishes. I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to Peruvian and can’t seem to shake ordering lomo saltado every single time. It’s as if that’s my marker for any good Peruvian restaurant.

So it is with great shock when I am told that there is no lomo saltado on the menu. SAY WHAT? Nope. “We have an oven and a steamer, there is no way to have a wok in here needed to make lomo saltado”. I was bummed!

However, any skepticism was soon quashed when I tasted what there was on offer. Ceviche Mariscos, a seafood salad — completely up my alley because it was on the tart side — completely tantalized my tastebuds.

In fact, my mouth puckered up and I couldn’t get enough of this addicting mix of seafood to satiate my desire. A chunk of sweet potato and sweet corn kernels help balance the tartness with a touch of sweetness in between bites of seafood. Now I was ready to tackle the next dish.

Secco de carne — a Peruvian beef stew is often offered as the special of the day.

Tender chunks of beef in a rich, sultry sauce. So sexy I wanted more but there was none left after Mahesh and I battled who was getting the last remaining bit left behind.

Arroz con mariscos was thrown in for good measure and naturally, the seafood and rice combo tossed in a succulent sauce with diced peppers and parsley is enough for two, so if you’re not THAT hungry, you can save some for the next meal.

Needless to say, I’ve pretty much eaten everything off the menu after eight months and I have many favorite dishes. When I’m feeling like something healthy, I choose Pescado a lo Macho, a steamed fish entree topped with a luscious sauce.

If you are a fan of lamb, definitely go on a day when Seco de Cordero (braised lamb shanks) are on the menu. This is another favorite of mine served with rice, a side of beans and salad. The meat is so tender it falls apart at the touch of a fork and the flavors so rich and tantalizing.

Or when I’m feeling like something comforting, I like Arroz con Pollo, steam rice topped with saucy shredded chicken reminiscent of chicken curry but without the spices. This is the most popular dish on Renzo’s menu by the way.

Sandwiches are also outstanding here because Renzo roasts the meats himself. Turkey, pork, beef, no matter which sandwich you choose, each and every one of them is packed with the best ingredients. My son loves the roasted pork sandwich with garlic aioli.

There is even a seared ahi tuna sandwich which is named after Phil, a regular, and every time I’ve seen him at Renzo’s he’s ordered this item, and he was really sweet to let me photograph his lunch to show everyone.

There are salads as well, but I don’t come here for those. If I wanted a salad, I’ll do it myself, what’s the point? I come here for things I can’t make myself. For instance, the piping hot Aguaditos de Pollo, or chicken and cilantro soup, perfect on a cold wet day! This has got to be my favorite soup here! Chunks of chicken immersed in a beautifully hearty broth with fragrant cilantro and rice. Nothing’s better than this for comfort.

And when you’re finished, don’t leave without trying some alfajorres made by Renzo’s wife Dawn. He calls them La Gringa Alfajorres but I like them better than some of the traditional ones I’ve had. These bite-sized cookies are buttery, delicate and has a caramel filling. They are then dusted with powdered sugar. Simply delicious.

I’ve been back countless times and it’s like visiting an old friend whenever I step inside the restaurant. I am greeted with the heartiest welcome — a huge bear hug from the man himself — and all the latest gossip of kids, family etc, whenever time allows. These days, it is rare that the restaurant is empty, but Renzo will always make time for his customers whether it is their first visit, or familiar faces. It is his energy which makes Renzo’s A Taste of Peru what it is.

You might arrive at Renzo’s a stranger, but when you leave, you feel like a part of something, and it makes you want to come back again. And you do. I did! Now, I feel like I’m a part of Renzo’s family whenever I step through the door!

Renzo’s A Taste of Peru
2222 Michelson Drive
Irvine, CA 92612
949-955-9053

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East Borough

I love lil Saigon and I go there at least twice a month, sometimes, once a week, which is why when I saw this place at The Camp, immediate skepticism hit me. I love Vietnamese food! I’m just not sure I love having a shi shi Vietnamese restaurant in the middle of, well, THE CAMP!

I was certain it was going to be over-rated, mediocre, hyped up and just to prove myself right, I got two of my friends together and went down there just so we could order the whole menu.

Holly, Selene and I arrived early and well, although we didn’t order the entire menu, we ordered plenty! As you might have guessed, I arrived already pre-judging the place and I was determined to dislike it.

The gal at the counter was very pleasant! Drats! Why can’t you be surly like everyone else in lil Saigon? After ordering, we found an available table, took a seat and chatted while waiting for the food. My plan wasn’t working — the staff is friendly and we certainly liked the atmosphere…. I mean what’s not to like? But how about the food?

We ordered Traditional Spring Roll ($4.50/2 rolls or $6.25/3 rolls) with pork and shrimp (although there are also chicken and shrimp or tofu) and is accompanied with the pre-requisite hoisin sauce like you get in lil Saigon.

Of course, these were pricier than what you will find in Westminster, by about 50 cents to $1 more, but I remind myself that rent is higher and I’ve saved on gas. They were decent and I liked the hoisin sauce a lot.

Grapefruit Lemongrass Salad ($7.35) was innovative, tasty and refreshing, especially if you are watching your carb intake. Lemongrass infused chicken is served over carrots and cabbage and topped with grapefruit and cilantro. The dressing is awesome — a citrus vinaigrette which is similar to nuoc mam but without the obvious taste of fish sauce and the sesame cracker added a nice crispy component to the salad. It is simply delicious.

For the bun, or Vermicelli Noodles ($7.35), you can go vegetarian by choosing tofu instead of grilled pork,  but we wanted meat! There was a good amount of lettuce, cucumbers, mint leaves and crushed peanuts, but just a little too much noodles when compared to the accompaniments. You also get a small egg roll with this entree but it wasn’t enough to offset the massive amount of vermicelli.

Banh Mi were $4.35 for an 8-inch and $6.40 for a 12-inch. We ordered grilled pork which is beautifully seasoned with bits of do chua (pickled radish and carrots) and cilantro in between the baguette — which, incidentally, isn’t hard and didn’t cut the roof of my mouth like it usually does when I eat banh mi. My only gripe is that there isn’t enough filling, but otherwise, very tasty indeed.

Beef Stew ($6.95) was piping hot when it arrived, a bowl of hearty, rich broth with tender beef, sweet carrots and potato.

Garnished with cilantro, lime and onions, the stew isn’t greasy at all and possessed a heady star-anise flavor which I so love. It is served with a baguette, and the best part is that the beef isn’t fatty or grisly at all, nor was the baguette hard and dry.

There were other items on the menu such as curry which I’ve yet to try but for now, East Borough is a definite “like” for me. Service is great, food is stellar and I can get there in 10 minutes! As long as I can find parking at The Camp, it’s all good!

East Borough
2937 Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-641-5010

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Chocolat Cremerie — San Diego

It isn’t always that a bunch of people who haven’t seen each other for about 30 years is able to get together, especially since we all knew one another on another continent.

When my friend Cynthia visited from Toronto, she managed to gather some of our old school friends together for Sunday brunch. Cynthia had fond memories of her meal at Chocolat when she visited San Diego on a previous visit and wanted to go back again.

There were 5 of us, and luckily everyone was pretty easy going when it came to menu selection.

We began with baked Bone Marrow ($12.95). Three chunks of bone arrived on a platter with salsa verde, roasted garlic and artisan bread slices.

The marrow hidden within the bone was so gooey and rich and after we lathered it onto the bread with a dollop of the parsley, garlic and caper salsa verde, we bit into it and proclaimed it heavenly! This is a very rich and heavy dish so I highly recommend sharing. Even so, there was a lot of marrow for the 5 of us.

I saw that they had a “mozarella bar pantry” and inquired if they made the cheeses in-house. They do not, but is acquired from an authentic little place in Little Italy I’m told. Oh well, I still wanted some and decided upon the Mozarella Tasting Plate ($11.95) consisting of burrata, buffalo milk mozarella, Fior de Latte cow’s milk mozarella.

Carpaccio and arugula ($11.95) had some parmigiano shavings, capers, extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice and only fared average with me. It was okay, I’ve definitely had better.

The pizza with mission bay figs ($13.95) caught my eye and I should’ve inquired carefully before ordering because I asked the server if they had figs — as it wasn’t in season — and she said yes.

When it arrived, they were dried figs rather than fresh and that immediately changed the flavors on this pizza. I’m not sure the caramelized onions or candied pecans did much to enhance the flavors, but the gorgonzola and prosciutto definitely added a much needed saltiness to the pizza.

Penne with roasted peppers and sausage ($10.95) was under-seasoned and very boring.

In fact, I make a similar dish at home and it is one of the easiest things to do as long as you have good quality ingredients (I get my sausage from Claro’s Market in Tustin) and you don’t overcook the pasta. I hate it when I am disappointed at the simplest of dishes when eating out.

The girls order crepes for dessert and I had a bite — they were okay — but I was already full and not being a fan of crepes made it hard for me to take an additional mouthful.

A pleasant meal even though there were a few hiccups but overall a nice brunch place to hang out as a couple, family or with your girlfriends. The only way I would return is for the bone marrow. That in itself is worth a visit!

Chocolat Cremerie
3896 5th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92103
Tel: 619-574-8500

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An evening of beer, cupcakes & beauty

This week, Holly and I were invited to an event at benefit Cosmetics in Santa Monica entitled “Beauty Bloggers & Beer”. It sounded so intriguing that the two of us made the treacherous drive up north fighting LA rush hour traffic so we can experience for ourselves what this was all about.

Featuring beer from Deschutes Brewery and cupcakes from Hotcakes Bakes made with Deschutes Black Butte Porter, the evening started with a little makeover for all the ladies who attended and we were able to choose from eyebrow waxing, eyebrow tinting or lash tinting. When that was over, we were given a makeover session using benefit Cosmetics especially suited to our individual skin types and tones.

However, the star of the evening was the Deschutes Brewery‘s selection of beers and we were treated to a sampling of 3 including: Mirror Pond Pale Ale, “once-a-decade” ale and my personal favorite, Black Butte Porter. The porter was so rich and ‘chocolately’ with a stout flavor. I wanted to have more but I was driving so I refrained and instead, managed managed to catch a few moments with Veronica Vega, Deschutes’ first female brewer to hear about her brewing inspirations.

I also tried one of the cupcakes made with the porter and could really taste the beer in the cake portion. It was moist and on top of the frosting, a little pretzel added some crunchy texture to the cupcake.

A delightful event which will be talked about for years to come! I for one am loving my darker eyelashes!

benefits Cosmetics
1210-A Montana Ave
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Tel: 310-458-6800

Deschutes Brewery
901 SW Simpson Ave
Bend, OR 97702
Tel: 541-385-8606

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Hotcakes Bakes
4119 S Centinela Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90066
Tel: 310-397-2324

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